What is expected from Afghanistan’s upcoming parliamentary elections?
Four years after the fundamentalist Taliban regime was overthrown by a U.S.-led coalition, experts say the September 18 elections—the first ever free, democratic parliamentary elections in Afghanistan—could herald a new start for the war-ravaged country. Some 12.5 million Afghans are registered to vote in the parliamentary poll, which comes one year after Hamid Karzai was elected in the country’s first free presidential election. Yet some fear progress could be hindered if members of the Taliban or warlords who still control wide swathes of the country win substantial representation in parliament.
What will be the structure of the new parliament?
The new National Assembly will have two chambers, a directly elected lower house, the Wolesi Jirga, and an upper house, the House of Elders, composed of appointed and indirectly elected candidates. On Sunday, Afghan voters will cast two ballots: one for candidates for the Wolesi Jirga, and one for candidates to sit on provincial councils in each of the thirty-four provinces. The leaders of the provincial councils will join district council heads, to be elected next year, and presidential appointees in the House of Elders. There are 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga. The House of Elders will have fifty-one seats, half its eventual total, until district council elections are held next year.
Who is monitoring the elections?
There will be over 1,000 Afghan election observers, and hundreds of international ones, on hand to monitor Sunday’s election. The European Union sent a 100-member observer mission to Afghanistan, headed by Emma Bonino, an Italian member of the European Parliament. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, is deploying dozens of its staff around the country to monitor the elections. Other countries are also participating, including Japan, which sent a three-member team.
What role are the Taliban playing in the election?
Its members are denouncing the elections as a foreign-organized “farce” and threatening Afghans who vote, saying they could get caught in attacks against polling stations. Even before the official campaign period began August 15, Taliban members had been using violence and threats to intimidate or kill candidates, election workers, civilian contractors, and moderate clerics. Nearly 1,000 people, including more than fifty U.S. soldiers and seven parliamentary candidates, have been killed in militant violence so far this year. It is the highest death toll in Afghanistan since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001. Experts say they are worried that the threats, especially in the countryside and the Taliban strongholds of the central and southern regions, will deter Afghans from going to the polls.
Other current and former Taliban members have taken a different road and are running for office. Some of these candidates have heeded Karzai’s call to disarm—including former Taliban deputy interior minister Mullah Mohammed Khaksar—and some have not. The electoral commission has barred nearly fifty candidates from running for election because of their ties to armed militias.
What is the role of women?
Sixty-eight seats in the Wolesi Jirga, just more than one quarter of the total, are reserved for women. Local councils in all thirty-four provinces will also have one quarter of their seats filled by women, and one-sixth of the seats in the House of Elders are set aside for women. More than 500 women are running nationwide—although social restraints in some parts of the country, including the conservative Pashtun south, have led to a paucity of candidates in some areas. Masouda Jalal, the country’s minister for women’s affairs, says many thousands more women wanted to run for office but couldn’t afford to pay campaign expenses. In addition, in most traditional Afghan households husbands control the finances, and many have been unwilling to support their wives’ candidacies. But women are not being deterred from participating in the elections: 44 percent of newly registered voters this year are women.
What is the role of young people?
About seventy to eighty candidates under thirty are running for the Wolesi Jirga, where the minimum age is twenty-five. Roughly 150 candidates are under the age of thirty-five. The minimum voting age in Afghanistan is eighteen, and experts say they expect a strong turnout from young people, whose main priorities are establishing security and expanding opportunities for education.
Who will provide security during the elections?
More than 100,000 Afghan and foreign troops will provide security for the elections. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO sent an additional 2,000 troops from Spain, Romania, and the Netherlands to Afghanistan in early September, bringing its total force to 11,000 in the days before the elections. NATO and U.S. officials are currently in talks about the future structure of these forces. The United States is reportedly considering withdrawing some 4,000 soldiers, about 20 percent of its current troop presence, next spring. There are currently some 20,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, mostly in the south and east, where they are in charge of fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda forces.
For the elections, ISAF troops will provide security in the capitol, Kabul, and the northern and western parts of Afghanistan, which are under the NATO security umbrella. However, primary responsibility for security at the more than 6,000 polling stations on election day will lie with some 50,000 members of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, who did the same job in last year’s presidential election.